The director of the US Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday said she hopes people will decide to individually 'do the right thing' about distancing and wearing masks, even in states moving to eliminate restrictions against the CDC's recommendations.
'I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,' Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing.
Walensky's comments come after governors of Texas and Mississippi said they were lifting mask mandates and allowing businesses to open at full capacity, starting now or within days.
President Joe Biden sharply criticized states lifting Covid restrictions Wednesday, saying he thought it was a 'big mistake' and that 'these masks' make a difference.
'We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we're able to get vaccines in people's arms,' Biden said. 'The last thing -- the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters.'
Public health leaders across the US have urged states to wait at least for far more inoculations and lower cases levels before easing safety measures, pointing to an increasing spread of more-transmissible coronavirus variants that could spark another surge in cases.
Walensky said she 'would still encourage individuals to wear masks to do the right thing to protect their health.'
'Every individual ... is empowered to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide for personal health, for public health, for their health, and their loved ones and communities,' she said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday 'it is really risky' to lift mask mandates and restrictions.
'That is a dangerous sign, because when that has happened in the past, when you pull back on measures of public health, invariably you've seen a surge back up,' said Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 'So we really don't want to claim premature victory.'
Texas drops mask mandate, allows 100% capacity in businesses
With less than 7% of residents in his state fully vaccinated, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Tuesday lifting a statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity, effective March 10.
'It is clear from the recoveries, the vaccinations, the reduced hospitalizations, and the safe practices that Texans are using, that state mandates are no longer needed. We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans,' Abbott's Press Secretary Renae Eze told CNN in a statement. 'The Governor's focus has been, and always will be, protecting the lives and livelihoods of Texans.'
The governor said county leaders may opt to use mitigation strategies if regional Covid-19 hospitalizations rise above 15% of bed capacity for seven days straight. But they cannot impose jail time for people who don't follow Covid-19 orders, nor can residents be penalized for not wearing masks, he said.
The Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced Wednesday that local school boards can determine whether the mask policy should be in their area. It also said the public school system's current practices on mask-wearing can continue unchanged.
In Houston, the chief of staff of the United Memorial Medical Center, said he told his staff to prepare for surges in patients because of the vanishing rules.
'If we open the state on the 10th, I'm telling you, before the end of March, we're going to have problems,' Dr. Joseph Varon told CNN's 'New Day' Wednesday.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he was 'dumbfounded' by the governor's announcement and pleaded with residents to 'act like we do have a mask mandate, for people to continue to wear it, for businesses to continue to require it.'
In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves said starting Wednesday the state would lift its county mask mandates and allow businesses to operate at full capacity.
'Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time,' Reeves wrote about his decision on Twitter.
Mayors of some cities, including Jackson and Greenville, said they will keep enforcing citywide mask mandates.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also announced revisions to public health orders Tuesday, including dropping a 300-person limit for events at banquet centers. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled a series of eased restrictions taking effect Friday, including expanded capacity for restaurants, retail, gyms, stadiums and other facilities.
And in Louisiana, the majority of businesses -- including restaurants and salons -- will be allowed to operate at 75% capacity starting Wednesday, while religious services will no longer have capacity limits, the governor said.
Thirteen states are now without statewide mask mandates.
Testing demand is dropping
Although Covid-19 case levels in the US are well below a January peak, health experts have given a few points of caution about the decline.
The US averaged more than 65,400 new cases a day over the last week, far below a peak average of more than 249,700 day reached on January 8. But the rate of decline has recently slowed -- the average was just above 70,000 a week ago, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
And the current case average is still high in context -- it's very close to the highest average of last summer, which was around 67,030 on July 20.
Also, fewer people appear to be getting tested, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the week that ended Monday, the US recorded an average of about 1.5 million Covid-19 tests daily, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.
That's about 26% fewer than the average in mid-January, when the US saw a seven-day average of more than 2 million tests reported.
'Widespread testing must continue in order to defeat the pandemic,' Dr. Greta Massetti, from the CDC, told CNN Tuesday. 'It will take many months for all Americans to have the opportunity to receive one of the vaccines available.'
'In the meantime, it's essential that people continue to take preventive measures.'
On the vaccination side, a federal official told CNN that the CDC won't advise vaccinated Americans that they can go back to life as it was 2019. The agency will release guidelines when they are finalized later this week.
'It's not that simple because not everybody has been vaccinated, and we haven't reached the point where there is population-level immunity where we can give broad advice like that,' according to the Biden administration official. 'It's not possible yet to say, 'Yeah, you're vaccinated, so everything is hunky dory.'
The CDC official confirmed that a Politico article accurately characterized the guidelines as recommending that fullyâ€¯vaccinatedâ€¯people limit their social interactions to small home gatherings with otherâ€¯fullyâ€¯vaccinatedâ€¯people. The guidelines also say fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks in public and practice social distancing. The agency will also give guidance for travel.
The guidelines won't be prescriptive about what vaccinated people can and cannot do in all circumstances, according to the administration official. For example, it won't say vaccinated people can or cannot go to specific places or business establishments.
'It's impossible to get to that level of detail -- we can't predict every situation that human beings will be in,' the Biden official said. 'What we can do is give principles for people to think through. It will give people the means to think through it and then they can choose what level of risk they wish to take.'
Inoculations with Johnson & Johnson vaccine ramp up
More than 51.7 million people in the US have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to CDC data. More than 26.1 million -- about 7.9% of the US population -- have received two doses.
While vaccines will be available for all US adults by the end of May, teenagers will still have to wait until the fall, Fauci said. Vaccines for children younger than 13 most likely won't be available until early next year, 'more likely the first quarter of 2022,' Fauci said Wednesday.
On Wednesday, more US vaccine sites began offering the recently authorized one-dose Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. Before this week, the only Covid-19 vaccines authorized in the US -- from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna -- have been two-dose products.
Among the locations offering the J&J vaccine Wednesday was a Federal Emergency Management Agency-run site at Miami Dade College.
At that site, people can arrive without registering beforehand and can choose -- as supplies allow, on a first-come, first-serve basis -- which company's vaccine to receive. The site intends to offer 500 J&J shots and 2,500 Pfizer shots per day.
On Tuesday, a vaccination site in Columbus, Ohio, became one of the first places to administer the J&J vaccine outside a clinical trial. The introduction of a third vaccine is expected to help boost the country's daily inoculation rate.
While there has been mostly good news with the J&J vaccine, some Catholic bishops are discouraging church members from getting the J&J vaccine. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with six other dioceses across the US, released statements expressing 'moral concerns' over the shot because of its use of lab-grown cells that descend from cells taken in the 1980s from the tissue of aborted fetuses.
President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the US will have enough Covid-19 vaccine doses for every adult American by the end of May -- speeding up the timeline of the administration's previous goal by two months.
His remarks came as the President announced a partnership in which pharmaceutical company Merck will help Johnson & Johnson produce the latter's vaccine -- with an expectation that this will yield a faster overall production.
Governors across the country have said the introduction of the J&J vaccines to the US market will help ramp up vaccinations, and some have announced expanded eligibility guidelines as a result of the added supply.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced that starting Wednesday, all frontline essential workers in Group 3 are eligible to make vaccine appointments, noting that the state also plans to make residents with comorbidities in Group 4 eligible later this month.
North Carolina has created the groups to set vaccine priorities and is already vaccinating Groups 1 and 2, which include health care workers, long-term care staff and residents, and older adults.
'The third vaccine and improving vaccine supply will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly,' the governor said. 'But as we've said before, we still don't have enough vaccines. You may have to wait for an appointment even if today's action means you are eligible to get vaccinated.'
For Americans who have already received a first dose, Johnson & Johnson's vaccine should not replace second doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines except in 'exceptional situations,' the CDC warned.
'The Covid-19 vaccines are not interchangeable, and the safety and efficacy of a mixed-product series has not been evaluated,' Dr. Sarah Mbaeyi, CDC medical officer, said Tuesday. 'We don't want people to just start mixing and matching with whatever is easiest to get.'